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Mothers of Ascension


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:43 pm

Eileen MacDougall bends over a table, paintbrush in hand, considering how to decorate the all-white baby onesie in front of her. Around her, women are dipping their brushes into DayGlo pots of fabric paint, then carefully brushing messages onto their own onesies. “Let’s use our outside voices!” reads one; another identifies its potential newborn wearer as a “Product of the Labor Movement,” and one more reads, “I’d be cuter with universal health care.”

MacDougall, a 55-year-old mother from Wilmington, Massachusetts, eventually settles on “My mom is MAD…and she VOTES,” which she writes with a flourish in orange, embellishing the text with ribbons on either side. Next to her, Elisa Batista, a 31-year-old mother of two from Berkeley, California, paints “Security for All” in vivid purple letters on the onesie in front of her.

The women—and, it should be pointed out, one man—are among two dozen participants at a weekend workshop, MomsRising: Organizing for a 21st Century Women’s Movement, at Omega Institute near Rhinebeck. Led by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founders of an online grassroots advocacy group called MomsRising (, the workshop is hosted by Omega’s Women’s Institute, which seeks to examine the relationship between women and power. “Historically, the voice of the mom has been really left out of the public discussion,” says Carla Goldstein, director of the Women’s Institute (and a mother of two girls). “Now, moms are increasingly in the workforce and the public space.”

They’re also online. MomsRising is the most prominent voice of a rising mother’s movement that, if Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner’s instincts are right, could have broad social impact: changing how America thinks about, and treats, its mothers.


The leaders of this resurgent women’s movement, Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner, at first seem like unlikely partners. Blades, who began her career as a divorce mediator and software developer, is best known for founding, the liberal political action group, with her husband, Wes Boyd. Rowe-Finkbeiner is an author, freelance journalist, and consultant with expertise in environmental and public policy who is married to a former Republican senator from Washington State. Their experience with diff erent political constituencies is far from a problem, though; if anything, it’s MomsRising’s secret weapon. “We want to be universal,” says Blades, and Rowe-Finkbeiner adds, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican when you have a baby. These issues impact all of us.”

Consider, for example, one of the most basic issues: fair pay for equal work. Eileen MacDougall, who’s dressed in a purple shirt with white lettering that reads “Outrageous Older Woman,” outlines the core issue that brought her to MomsRising as she brushes orange letters onto her onesie. “I work in a large financial instution,
and although the company is benevolent, I don’t know if I’m getting pay equal to the men who are doing the same work as me,” she says. “There’s just no way to be sure.”

Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner’s message is simple: America’s mothers are in a bind. Paid less than their male counterparts, forced to leave sick family members uncared for or forfeit pay, rarely given paid leave after birthing a child—working mothers in the United States have fewer support systems than mothers in almost any other country. When it comes to the issue of parental leave after childbirth, for example, there are only four countries—Swaziland, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and the US—that don’t have a national policy to provide some kind of paid leave.

Since its inception, on Mother’s Day 2006, MomsRising has campaigned on issues that concern mothers, from fair pay and paid family leave to toxicity levels in children’s toys. The organization’s membership crosses political and socioeconomic lines: MomsRising is making particular efforts to reach out to women of color and low-income women. So far, there are 150,000 active members who do everything from signing online petitions to visiting legislative representatives.

Even the onesies are part of the plan. MomsRising has amassed 2,500 of the customized outfits, in a campaign cleverly called “The Power of Onesie.” Used for displays in front of state legislatures, the onesies are pleasingly eye-catching and give an ironic twist to the cliché of politicians kissing babies. “No pressure, but every time we’ve used the onesie display, we’ve been able to push a bill through,” Rowe-Finkbeiner says with a laugh as the participants wield their brushes.

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